As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is currently exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London. To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, James Freeman, British Library, writes on a particularly fascinating letter from King Henry V.
Written around 1418, this letter exemplifies Henry V’s firm grasp of royal government: his ability to delegate, to issue clear instructions, and his command of administrative details, even in the midst of the second campaign in France. The letter addresses the most important nobles who were ruling in the king’s absence: Henry’s brother, John, duke of Bedford; his cousins Ralph Neville, 1st earl of Westmorland and Henry Percy, 2nd earl of Northumberland; and Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham. It encompasses matters of national security – the strength of the northern border against possible Scottish incursions – as well as how a single, admittedly very important, prisoner of war should be held in custody. It makes clear to its recipients and to us how these two issues were interconnected. Most remarkably, it is written in English, quite possibly by Henry’s own hand.
Why is the language of this letter so significant? In the fifteenth-century, unlike the twenty-first, linguistic boundaries did not neatly coincide with those of nation-states. Three main languages had co-existed in England since the Norman Conquest: Latin, French and English. Such trilingualism persisted because each language fulfilled distinct purposes that one or both of the others could not. This was not a static situation, however; over the centuries following 1066, the role of each language evolved, one sometimes overlapping with another or taking on new roles.
Latin was the trans-national language of religion and learning. It remained in England (despite the efforts of John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century), as elsewhere, the language of the Bible and of church liturgy. It was written and spoken by scholars in the universities, the religious orders in monasteries, and by bishops and priests in cathedrals and churches. The authority and antiquity of Latin helped it to become the common language of administration and the law: of charters, grants, writs, orders, wills, indentures, of the panoply of medieval documentary culture.
Following the Norman Conquest, French became the language of the ruling elite. Old English – the tongue of the Anglo-Saxon kings and of epic poetry such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon – was side-lined. Long after kings of England ceased to be French-born men, French remained entrenched as the aristocratic language of courtly culture and chivalry, and of the Arthurian prose and verse romances that these classes consumed. In the thirteenth century, it too was adopted as a legitimate legal language.
English played a subordinate role. It persisted as the spoken language of common people after 1066, but diversified into regional dialects while adopting words of French origin. These colloquialisms seeped into written English, making it harder for readers to understand and limiting its potential as a literary language. From the thirteenth century onwards, some scholars and clerics composed in Middle English new works of literature (The Owl and the Nightingale, Layamon’s Brut) and devotional texts (the Ancrene Riwle, Richard Rolle’s Form of Living), or produced translations from works originally written in Latin (Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, translated by John Trevisa) or French (Handlyng Synne and the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng of Brunne).
Prior even to his accession, Henry was involved in the rehabilitation of English as a literary language. In 1412, he commissioned John Lydgate to write the Troy Book. The work took eight years to complete. Translated mainly from the thirteenth-century Historia destructionis Troiae of Guido delle Colonne, it provided a heady mix of history, romance, battles and eloquent speeches, drawing lessons for the present-day ruler from the events it described.
As Prince of Wales, Henry was the dedicatee of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, a Middle English poem that drew on Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum and the Secreta secretorum to describe the virtues necessary in a good ruler. A relationship was thus established between patron and author, with Henry encouraging Hoccleve to translate further works for him. Hoccleve’s ‘Series’ – a sequence of linked poems in English – included tales from the Gesta Romanorum and the Horologium sapientiae, and he wrote celebratory verse in praise of Henry for important public occasions, such as the king’s victorious return from France in 1421.
Yet Henry’s ambitions for the English language were not confined to fine works of writing. English had ceased to be the language of government with the Norman Conquest. Henry changed that: he was the first king for nearly four centuries, the first since Edward the Confessor, to issue orders routinely in English. The Signet Office – a private team of scribes and administrators that accompanied the king on his travels – wrote all of his letters in this way.
This letter indicates that the choice of language was a decision Henry took into his own hands. The use of formal but familial modes of address – ‘I wole that ye comend my brothre with the chanceller with my cosin of northumberland and my cosin of westmerland’ – suggests that it is Henry holding the pen, not one of his secretaries.
Note the title used for the anonymous informant – ‘a man of ryght notable estate’ – who has ‘secretly enfourmed’ the king of French and Scottish plans to rescue the duke of Orléans from his imprisonment. The register is formal, direct. ‘I wole’, Henry wrote twice in this letter; it is a clear expression of his personal will.
The adoption (or rather re-adoption) of English as a language of record by central government in the fifteenth century exerted considerable influence upon the development of English. Orders were circulated by the Chancery, the Exchequer and other offices of royal government across the country. Such documents may have been the first contact many people had with written English that was not obscured by regional idioms and idiosyncrasies. Its use by central government, the ultimate legal authority, legitimised English in other lesser legal contexts: in the wills, inventories, charters and business contracts of ordinary people. The creation of a standard form – that could be imitated, used and above all understood – facilitated that process. English became an authoritative but also a practical language, capable of use at all levels of society and across the country. Nation and language were once more in alignment.
To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.